Thursday, April 30, 2009

Boustan, Montreal, QC

“Every sandwich has to be right. I treat each one like it's my sandwich. As soon as my eyes are happy, I know it's ready."

Boustan owner Imad Smaidi, McGill Tribune, 11/18/03

Let's cut to the chase. My favorite food destination on the planet is a nondescript Lebanese basement sandwich shop in my hometown of Montreal. Even though the menu primarily deals with Lebanese street food, which is found in dozens of similar restaurants around the city, the philosophy and attention to detail at Boustan, outlined in the above quote, elevates its fare miles beyond its competitors into some of the best food you will ever eat.

Boustan has reached such a status with me that it's the first place I visit every time I return home, and I usually manage to squeeze in two meals there every time I'm in town. You'll want to order the chicken shawarma sandwich, which is a handheld culinary marvel. Each sandwich is handmade to order and consists of a hollowed out pita, filled first with chicken shaved from the vertical spit of meat rotating within inches of a hot gas flame. The stack of meat, three or so feet tall, consists of layers of marinated chicken breast seasoned with tomatoes and onions that release their juices as they slowly cook. The edges of the stack get crispy as they rotate next to the flame and the shaved pile is a perfect mix of crispy skin, bits of fat, and lean, juicy white meat.

The rest of the sandwich is stuffed with slices of tomato, lettuce tossed with parsley, neon pink pickled turnip spears, and a generous dollop of garlicky mayo. If you want a little heat, ask for it spicy, and watch as a spoonful of mystery sauce from an unmarked casserole dish is spread on your sandwich. It won't burn your mouth, but it will give your sandwich some extra zing. The extra touch that sets Boustan above its competitors is the last step. The filled sandwich is finally placed over a gas flame for a few moments to slightly char the pita, giving it enough crispiness and heating the ingredients inside just enough so that they meld together. The sandwich is carefully wrapped in a clean sheet of wax paper, and presented to you like the gift that it is.

It's hard to describe the perfect combination of flavours and textures in every bite of a Boustan chicken shawarma sandwich. The chicken dominates with its toothsome saltiness, dripping juices, and divine crispiness. The pickled turnip spears provide a touch of bitterness and ample crunch. The tomatoes provide acidity and moisture, the lettuce brings a cool sense of balance, while the mayo binds it all together in garlicky bliss. The pita provides a crispy shell and a hint of smokiness from the gas flame.

Frankly, this sandwich is so good, I wouldn't order anything else. People swear by their falafel, and they have a variety of other menu items. The garlic potatoes are good, but still can’t compete with the sandwich. One order consists of a small plate of cubes of deep fried potatoes which are tossed with salt and herbs, and topped with a generous spoonful of Boustan’s garlic mayo. To be sure, these are delicious, but the chicken shawarma is out of this world good.

The most popular time for a Boustan meal is at 3AM when the nearby bars and clubs empty, and the drunk masses stop for a late night bite before stumbling home. However, the best time to stop by for a visit is on a Sunday afternoon, when the rest of the city is hung over. You won't be rushed, and you can take a moment to examine the pictures on the counter which depict the various politicians and hockey players who have similarly enjoyed food bliss.

One close friend, a chef at one of the city's finest restaurants, has been known stop by Boustan after his shift ends to order a half dozen sandwiches to get him through the next few days. Even though I'd hyped it up relentlessly, Tamar insisted that it lived up to it's lofty expectations on our recent visit to the city and has since expressed cravings to return.

The service can be brusque, the basement dining area is sometimes slightly grimy and filled with drunk club kids, but order two chicken shawarma sandwiches, find yourself some space to sit down, and I promise you won't go home disappointed. I know that's what I'll be doing next time I'm in town.

Boustan is located at 2020 Rue Crescent in downtown Montreal, QC. They are open until 4AM and will often deliver to nearby locations if they aren't too busy. Call 514-843-3576 to place your order.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Sofia's Mexican Food, Gila Bend, AZ

I recently visited Phoenix and Scottsdale for a conference where I was presenting some of my recent research. I arrived in town a day early, with the goal of getting out of the city to see the surrounding desert and also eating some good Mexican food, which Pittsburgh is lacking. I had identified the Sonoran Desert National Monument, about 40 miles southwest of the city as my hiking destination and Gila Bend, a city on the edge of the park, as my target for a Mexican pre-hike meal.

As soon as my flight landed, I dragged my luggage to the rental car garage, packed it into my subcompact rental, and immediately hit the highway. Ninety or so minutes later I was driving along the one main road of Gila Bend past motels and palm trees until I spotted Sofia's, a nondescript Mexican diner on my right.

The Saturday afternoon dining room was crowded, but I had no problem securing a window booth. It was pushing 1PM in Phoenix and I hadn't eaten anything since my 7AM (eastern time) Danish at my flight gate in Pittsburgh, so I ordered more than I usually would have. I went with an asada taco, a carnitas taco, a cheese and bean tostada, and washed it all down with a lime Jarritos soda. While I waited for my meal, some house salsa was served in a small pitcher, along with a basket of warm tortillas chips. The salsa was fresh, with a mild but persistent heat.

After a short wait, my meal arrived on a single platter.

I was most excited about the carnitas, so I started with them. They were exceptional. Perfectly crispy outside, nicely chewy inside, with a deeply intense salty porkiness. Nothing in Pittsburgh even comes close. Next, I moved to the asada taco, which was also terrific. The steak was freshly grilled and sliced, with some nice crunchy caramelized bits, but the flavour paled when compared to the lingering memory of my carnitas. I was starting to fill up, but still devoured the tostada. Unfortunately, I had made a tactical error finishing with the blandest dish of all and I was wishing that I had ordered a second carnitas taco instead. The beans were nice, but couldn't quite stand alone, and the cheese was some kind of orange shredded mild cheddar-like substance which didn't really bring much to the plate.

All three items were topped with diced fresh lettuce, tomatoes, cilantro and onions, while a lemon wedge provided some acidity to the meal. The taco tortillas were lightly grilled on the kitchen's greasy hot-plate, soaking up the oils and aromas from the meats that had preceded them.

As I made my way out to the 98F heat, I figured that I had better stock up on supplies before hiking in the desert so I picked up a few gallons of water and some energy bars at a nearby grocery store before driving to the trailhead where I was going to hike. Unfortunately, I was intimidated by the combination of the scorching heat, the road that deteriorated to a dry creek bed that was impassable in my rental car, and signs telling me to keep alert for human smugglers, so I only paused in the park to take some pictures but missed out on a hike. Next time I'll bring some friends and a vehicle with four wheel drive. I'll also stop back at Sofia's for lunch.

Sofia's Mexican Food is located at 616 W Pima Street in Gila Bend, AZ. Call (928) 683-6382 for information, and make sure to bring a four wheel drive and companionship if you want to hike in the nearby Sonoran Desert National Monument.